Cheers Sexy People!
In response to my last post about my upsetting breakup that I am healing from, I had a great conversation with one of our frequent commenters here at Loving Without Boundaries, Clarathegreat. It turns out that she works in the mental health profession. I am passionate about mental health for many reasons, including trying to heal and learn from this poly breakup – while at the same time, it’s hard not to worry about my now ex-boyfriend as well (but update: From a recent text, he still is not making his mental and emotional health a priority, which saddens me – yet as the graphic says: You can’t force people to be or do what you want, so… take care of yourself and move on). Clarathegreat was kind enough to offer to write a guest blog post. Without further ado:
Hello! I am Clarathegreat, and I am so thrilled and honored that Kitty asked me to guest write a blog. In addition to living polyamorously, I am also a licensed mental health professional in New York, and Kitty thought maybe I could weigh in on some of the mental health aspects of relationships, why they go wrong and what we can do about them.
We are all an incredible complicated combination of our genes, our family units, our experiences, our wants and needs… there is no way to sum up the complexity of human experience in a diagnosis. But, as humans we love to classify – and so we try. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (commonly known as the DSM-5) is the current, definitive list of known and accepted psychiatric disorders. To be diagnosed with one of the disorders listed, a person must meet specific criteria.
For example, depression criteria includes a length of time symptoms have been experienced (must last longer than 2 weeks), there must be a change from a person’s usual or baseline feeling state, these feelings must interfere with activities of daily life, and the individual must display at least 5 of the following symptoms: depressed mood or irritable most of the day nearly every day, decreased interest or pleasure in most activities – particularly those that a person used to enjoy, noticeable weight gain or loss or noticeable change in appetite, sleep pattern change (sleeping too much or unable to sleep at all), change in activity (either unable to settle down or unable to get going), fatigue, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, inability to concentrate or make decisions, thoughts of death or suicide.
Once a person meets those criteria, the mental health professional will refine things even more by ruling out other issues – like medical problems or substance use/abuse, exploring the possibility of other possible disorders – like bipolar disorder which is the alternating of depressive symptoms with the opposite: speedy, “high”, super energetic behavior – often with an element of recklessness. Once other issues have been eliminated the practitioner determines the severity of the diagnosis – mild, moderate or severe. There are many different diagnoses – from the biggies, like depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders of various kinds to personality disorders like borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder to name just two. Even premenstrual dysmorphic disorder (PMDD) can be a diagnosis – that would be what most call PMS.
So – with all that being said – what purpose does this have in our daily lives and interactions with people both close to us? My argument is – not very much. And here’s why. These diagnoses are just clusters of behaviors that over time and with study have to be recognizable manifestations of mental health disorders. But in the reality of an intimate relationship, that label is the least important part! The behaviors – how they manifest, what they mean to the person who is doing them, what they mean to the people around them – THAT is the most important part. Psychiatric illness is a construct – it has different meaning depending on whether you are a provider, or a patient. An American or a person raised in a different country. Whether you are a man or woman, young or old.
It is so tempting to diagnose people we know. Usually because we are looking for some logical reason for their seemingly illogical actions or because we love them and think that if we put a label on their behavior, they can get help. But it doesn’t address the real issue: this person’s behavior is problematic! With or without a diagnosis, the outcome is the same. And having a diagnosis can explain, but not excuse a behavior.
So what to do? If you are in a relationship with a person whose behaviors have started to interfere with YOUR activities of daily life, there is reason for concern. Has a partner seemed secretive? Been lashing out? Not coming home? Not respecting mutually agreed upon boundaries? Been insulting, mean, abusive? Lying? Not going to work or school? These all might be symptoms of a mental illness, but that is not for you, the partner, to determine. Your first responsibility is to keep you and your loved ones safe. The reasons for these behaviors are not as important as ensuring that your health and happiness are not compromised. Time to start enforcing boundaries with this person. A break from the relationship, breaking up, couples therapy…whatever it takes.
Something to consider is how the person’s behavior is deviating from their baseline state as you know it. We all know couples whose dynamic is completely inexplicable to us – “How can s/he LIVE with him/her when they do THAT??”. But that’s their normal! Involving yourself with a person whose baseline includes things you think are off-the-wall means that you will be having to deal with that for the long-haul – that’s their baseline. But if a person suddenly changes…your behavior needs to change as well.
And I guess that is the (maybe) unsatisfying ending. “We cannot change other people, we can only change ourselves” are the truest words in therapy. We have no crystal ball when we start a relationship. All we have is the desire to get to know somebody, the capacity to love and our own intuition. At the end of it all – a good relationship is mutually satisfying to all partners. Only you know what this means to you, but whatever it is, you should never settle for anything less – no matter what the reason. Sometimes people do stupid, thoughtless, dickish things for reasons known (or not) only to themselves. But you don’t have to excuse or accept it no matter what label it has.
Thank you SO MUCH, Clarathegreat for this guest blog post! It truly resonates with me at this time. Setting healthy boundaries is another form of loving yourself and your loved ones. For me, breaking agreements, being dishonest and disrespectful, abusing and taking advantage of others is completely and utterly unacceptable behavior. Knowing yourself well and setting effective boundaries for what you will and will not accept from other people (in any relationship style) is a healthy way to live in my book. Loving and taking care of yourself and your family sometimes means making tough decisions that limit toxic behavior’s influence in your life where you are able. How about you? What are your thoughts on this article?
Wishing you peace, love and happiness,
(and thrilling, fun sex too)